Author Archives: Steve Hall

About Steve Hall

I'm an architect inspired by the craft of architecture. I design with clients to develop building solutions expressive in modern form, material craftsmanship, and technology. My practice builds on thirty years of architectural and construction experience to serve clients in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina.

Conceptual Design Tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

After defining the project, design explorations begin.

The project can come to life through a number of physical and virtual tools. I believe the pinnacle of architecture is a great physical model accompanied by sketches and drawings. But digital tools are usually more expeditious and flexible.

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Sketch 2016-06-21

Here's a quick glimpse into the very beginning of the design process.

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram

Background

This sketch is for the renovation of a large corporate canteen. The spaces are used by more than a hundred employees at a time for eating lunch or taking a quick break at a large food distribution center.

There are three existing rooms:  two seating rooms with tables and chairs on either side of a central food pantry. This last space is a place for employees to store their lunch bags in large refrigerators with sinks, microwaves, and vending machines to support warming and supplementing them.

I've added a shaded zone to indicate the larger facility beyond. The left and bottom of the canteen space have glass to the outside, with the bottom facing east and the left facing south.

One final item was the existing televisions mounted on the walls of both existing seating rooms. Tuned to inane daytime talk shows all day, I could imagine resting in this din only in some Harrison Bergeron dystopia and was determined to provide relief for the minority if I could help it.

Concept

I usually start design with an attitude about the sun and environment beyond the architecture. They are like a free design feature. Here, the bottom seating room had strong sunlight and expansive views outside. It struck me as a meadow of sun and views to nature, the tranquil place of repose to relax with connections to outside after long hours in a dark warehouse. It could be a social space for talking and enjoying human conversation removed from blaring electronic media.

But the upper seating room had limited glass. With little natural light already, why not darken it further for an enhanced television watching experience for those that care? It could be the inwardly focused space with multiple televisions, supported by dark finishes, soft lighting, and smaller groupings of tables at different heights. Imagine a pub or sports bar.

With contrasting rooms on either side, the central pantry bottleneck was broadened and straightened to simplify passage within and to either side. Two "streets" were carved across the transitions between to exterior doors for smokers.

The entire cityscape come together in a singular metaphor. Does this help to explain how design is at the same time a philosophical idea and a solution to physical needs?

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Harrison Bergeron

Equal

Equal?

Written in 1961, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Harrison Bergeron is a classic. The three-page short story can be found online here and elsewhere.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

This story comes to my mind often in architectural practice. Many who know me have read it at my urging. Despite our best intentions, projects are utterly encumbered by codes, laws, and regulations in the attempt to create safety, opportunity, and equality.

Not that any of these are, in themselves, bad things. In fact, utopian vision has driven architecture for at least four millennia. I am actually a proponent for great design and good craftsmanship that is inclusive, accessible, and universal. Slightly larger spaces aren't just for injured employees, aging residents, or disabled visitors. They also help encumbered firemen in smoke-filled air trying to rescue occupants. In that context, what's a few more inches?

Still, our endeavor to create great is slowly being truncated by our compromise to create barely adequate. Great design takes great time, and the more factors there are to consider, the longer it is going to take and the more it is going to cost.

I suppose inflation is the natural course of civilization simply due to this ever-expanding growth of requirements. But is there a way to simplify? At what point can we no longer afford the growth of regulation? With U.S. federal government debt at $19,963,980,500,000 (trillion), haven't we exceeded our capacity to pay for these demands?

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Project Math

Dilbert 2009-12-07

Dilbert 2009-12-07

As explained by Scott Adams, design has to be resolved before the final cost of a project can be established. Yet I'm often asked how much a project will cost even before a napkin sketch.

But defining the project isn't difficult and doesn't take long. For a small project, it might just take an hour. And even if more information is needed, what is outstanding can be mapped out the first meeting.

Terms

The goal is the project definition. We can also define its constituent terms:

PROGRAM   =   Space Names   +   Space Sizes

The program is simply a list of all the spaces needed. These might adjust as details emerge, but an initial program is key to start design.

SCALE   =   Program   ×   Efficiency Factor

It's difficult to figure out non-spaces:  thicknesses of walls, chases, corridors, stairs, mechanical rooms, electrical closets, utility rooms, storage, and other incidental uses. Some factoring of these inefficiencies is required to better predict the final area of a building.

QUALITY   =   Non-quantitative project parameters

High quality design, envelope, energy efficiency, finishes, furnishings, fixtures, and equipment will have a more dramatic effect on budget than its size. For example, low grade builder homes can cost just $75/SF and take just a month to build while an exquisite jewel might cost more than $600/SF and take two years. Quality is the most significant factor in a building's cost and needs to be decided at the beginning of a project.

SCOPE   =   Scale   ×   Quality

Although defined early, adjustments between these two factors is a component of the design process. This blog attests that Better Than Bigger and we often find that great design may supplant the need for overly large spaces.

SCHEDULE   =   Time to complete the project

Can a contractor take two years to finish a small project? Must he complete the work before the home owners return from a three week vacation in Europe? Does a school renovation need to be worked on after hours? Are there elaborate security and cleanliness requirements for a hospital renovation? Does a large house and garden renovation need to be used for a lawn wedding? Will a home owner build in his spare time? All of these answers may dictate stringent schedule parameters. Depending on the responses, any of these may impact the design and labor costs of a project significantly.

BUDGET   =   Funds allotted to the project

Unfortunately, the design, construction, and real estate industries wildly swag irresponsible $/SF numbers around like water balloons. But an accurate project budget considers quality, schedule, and numerous factors beyond simple labor and materials. To be complete, a budget should also include contractor's overhead and profit, general conditions,* building permits, printing, furnishings, many items usually outside of the contract purchased by the owner like appliances and mailboxes, surveying, architectural and engineering services, municipal charges, utility costs, cleaning, and even move costs.

PROJECT DEFINITION   =   Scope   ×   Schedule   ×   Budget

The final project definition is the goal to begin design. However...

DESIGN   =   Resolution of the project definition

We want design to discover opportunities. Exploration is the purpose of planning. (Otherwise, we would always charge on to a job site hammering a bunch of lumber together hoping for the best. Ever see that happen?) Drawing and modeling is much cheaper than making construction mistakes, but the bigger benefit is that design finds opportunity.

So we begin with the project definition and make iterative design passes to progressively refine the terms and results. This may be more linear or more explorative depending on the project and the client. But these basic definitions must always equate at any point in the process.

Summary

Space Names   +   Space Sizes   =   Program

Program   ×   Efficiency Factor   =   Scale

Scale   ×   Quality   =   Scope

Scope   ×   Budget   ×   Schedule   =   Project Definition

Project Definition   ×   Resolution   =   Design

If you are starting a project, try defining each of these terms. And feel free to contact me to discuss and maybe sit down together and start sketching solutions.

* General Conditions:  Numerous contract conditions that stipulate the execution of the construction contract. These are very broad and depend on many project particular specifics. Examples include insurance, length of time to complete, product submittals for selection and approval, payments, review of the work, trash and dumpsters, protection and cleanup, bathroom facilities, access to the site, parking, drawing conventions and conflict resolution, and potentially many others, even to inappropriate or illegal behavior on the job site.

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Sketch 2016-05-17

sketch, 2016-05-17, downtown house space stacking diagrams

sketch, 2016-05-17, downtown house space stacking diagrams

Even if you don't get the project, you can still enjoy the process!

This was a quick look at an urban rooftop living room and kitchen addition. The building was a three-story masonry construction from 1915 in downtown Raleigh.

The existing stairs were in different locations on each floor. So this design re-stacked them for more efficiency toward the rear. And it introduced a skylight above it to filter natural daylight down the dark, north facing rear of the building.

The initial sketch worked out the spacial organization and then a 3D model looked more closely at the forms.

3D model, 2016-05-17, downtown house spaces

3D model, 2016-05-17, downtown house spaces

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